GOP hopeful Nikki Haley faces a moment of truth in the next primary debate Wednesday in Alabama: Can she seize on her momentum and put in a top-level performance that will turn her into a real rival for the presidential nomination to former President Trump?
The former United Nations ambassador has seen boosts from her previous debate performances, and another standout showing could propel her ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has long been considered Trump’s closest rival.
Given Trump’s significant lead over the rest of the GOP field, all eyes are on the race for second place — with just more than a month before 2024 voting kicks off with the Iowa caucuses in mid-January.
“Watching the trajectory of the debates, the one that is probably going to try to capture their moment will be Nikki Haley, because she is in a position to maybe securely take the second spot away from Ron DeSantis,” said Chris Brown, an Alabama-based Republican strategist.
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Haley got another boost last week when Americans for Prosperity Action, the conservative network led by billionaire Charles Koch, backed her 2024 bid. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon also called for Democrats to help Haley in her bid.
“Combining that recent victory with a positive debate performance could really solidify her as the most credible alternative to Trump, or in a clear second place,” said Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan and an expert on presidential debates.
The fourth debate — which is being hosted and broadcast by NewsNation and is being held in Tuscaloosa — is also a pivotal moment for DeSantis.
The Florida governor once seemed to be the “heir apparent” of the party, Kall said.
“But as time has gone on, and we’ve done more debates, the polling has just changed. Haley’s benefited the most from the debates. She’s been really consistent, and I think people have been impressed the more they’ve seen of her,” Kall said.
David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University in California, said the momentum heading into the fourth debate is “clearly” with the former U.N. ambassador.
“Next week, the spotlight, obviously, will be on Nikki Haley,” McCuan said.
McCuan pointed to the high expectations for DeSantis as a Trump alternative at the start of the race and said the Florida governor has “continued to underperform” in recent months — while Haley has been “doing pretty well or better than expected” and can “grab that rolling momentum.”
The Haley campaign is touting those successes and looking to push that energy even beyond the fourth debate.
“[Haley’s] gone into every debate making the case for why we need a new generation of conservative leadership who will leave the chaos of the past behind,” said a campaign spokesperson, who labeled Haley as “the only candidate on the rise.”
The Republican National Committee (RNC) hasn’t yet announced which candidates have met their heightened criteria for the fourth debate, but Haley, DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy appear to have qualified. Chris Christie’s team has said the former New Jersey governor has also met the donor criteria.
Trump has skipped the debate stages so far, and plans to forego the next.
The event in Alabama is set to be one of the last major opportunities for candidates to make their case just weeks before ballots are cast in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — the three early states that could decide the GOP primary in 2024.
“The stakes are really high for [Haley] to keep the enthusiasm going for her candidacy,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said. “Really knocking it out of the park at the debate would be a great thing for her to do.”
After the first debate back in August, polling indicated GOP voters saw Haley among the top performers, and that momentum appeared to carry through her next appearances.
Haley drew direct attacks from several of her fellow competitors at the third debate and clashed with DeSantis on the Miami stage, underscoring her strength as a threat in the 2024 field. Another poll of likely Republican primary voters and caucusgoers put Haley as the winner of the third debate — with DeSantis in second behind her.
Brown and other strategists pointed to the declining viewership of the debates and concerns about how much attention the fourth event will get as some voters disengage during the holiday season — but Brown said the event could still “change the dynamics of a candidacy” if a contender snags a star moment.
“Maybe this is the last chance before Iowa, New Hampshire start coming after Christmas to be the lead alternative to President Trump,” Brown said.
Additionally, Republican strategist Justin Sayfie argued that some voters may be tuning in even more intently next week than they did for the previous debates.
“The closer we get to ballots being cast, the more that voters in those early primary states are going to be paying attention. So in some ways … this is the most important debate that we’ve had so far,” Sayfie said.
Haley has been closing in on DeSantis in some states and rising in recent polls of the GOP field. A mid-November Emerson College poll of New Hampshire voters found Haley surged to runner-up status behind Trump in the Granite State, and a CNN poll from October puts her in second in her home state of South Carolina.
In Iowa, the first state to vote in the GOP’s presidential nominating cycle, Haley and DeSantis were tied for second in a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll from late October. DeSantis had dropped 3 points since August, and Haley had climbed 10 points.
Sayfie said expectations may be lower for DeSantis heading into the fourth debate and on — but argued that could now make it easier for him to exceed them.
Bonjean said the fourth debate is “more important for DeSantis than ever, because the spotlight has been really fading on his chances.
At the same time, DeSantis recently scored a coveted endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and made headlines for a Thursday night debate with Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, just a week ahead of the RNC event. His team has expressed expressed confidence about his chances in the early states.
“It’s really gonna be the two of them that everyone’s interested in,” Kall said of Haley and DeSantis at the fourth debate.
Just five candidates took part in the third debate, down from eight at the first.
Former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R) have both dropped out in recent weeks — but North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), neither of whom made the cut for the previous RNC debate, have both said they are staying in the race.
Many in the party are hoping the still-crowded field soon winnows, so support can consolidate behind a top Trump alternative, such as DeSantis or Haley, and make the race against the front-runner more competitive.
The former president is expected to win Iowa, but strategists say they’ll be looking at the margin between second and third to see which candidate is best positioned to be the top Trump rival in 2024.
“I think [Haley] has a lot at stake,” Sayfie said. “I think DeSantis has a lot at stake.”
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